A possible conservation easement deal with the chairman of the Pulaski County Planning Board has angered a group of Lake Maumelle Watershed landowners, who lodged complaints about a perceived conflict of interest this afternoon at the Central Arkansas Water board meeting.
CAW has a deal in the works with Planning Board chair Ray Vogelpohl for a conservation easement on his 335 acres that would restrict development on the land. CAW, which has never before paid for a conservation easement, has allocated $500,000 for that purpose in the 2013 Capital Projects budget, which could potentially go directly to Vogelpohl (paid for by consumers via a 45-cents-per-month watershed management fee). CAW officials stressed that the deal, which has been in negotiation for five years, was not yet official and that the $500,000 was a placeholder figure, as they do not yet have a figure for the proposed easement. An appraisal completed last month valued the easement at more than $800,000.
Vogelpohl has been on the county Planning Board since 2006, the only member who owns land in the watershed. He has been a supporter of the 2008 subdivision ordinance and the land-use ordinance set for a vote by the Quorum Court later this month. Both ordinances have been subjects of great controversy, with vehement protests from some landowners.
A group of around ten landowners attended the CAW meeting, with three of them speaking to complain to the board that the potential easement deal had the appearance of impropriety. They also said that no one had been in touch with them about easement deals on their land.
The line is open. Closing out:
* EQUAL RIGHTS? NOT MUCH IN FAVOR: 37 U.S. senators have signed a letter urging President Obama to issue an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination against gay people on federal contracts. No, neither Arkansas senator signed the letter. No, none of the Arkansas House delegation is on an earlier letter from some House members. Arkansas congressmen support employment discriminaton against gay people. It's that simple.
* FISHING FOR THE GAME AND FISH APPOINTEE: Gov. Mike Beebe will appoint a Game and Fish commissioner tomorrow to replace Rick Watkins, who resigned after a run-in with the law. An often reliable source says he believes Beebe will name someone from Texarkana tomorrow. Jeez, not a partner of John Goodson, I hope. If so, wonder if he's been on a cruise to Italy on a Tyson yacht? And salt this away: Additional scuttlebutt says a law school pal of Beebe's from Harrison is up for the next regular appointment. Rich white guys who've made political contributions is the usual template, whoever the next candidates might be.
* THE HUCKSTER!!! Public Policy Polling puts Mike Huckabee in second place, behind Marco Rubio, but ahead of Gov. Bobby Jindal, in polling of Louisiana voters on potential Republican presidential nominees in 2016.
* RAZORBACK ECONOMIC IMPACT: The University of Arkansas distributed a study the other day touting the economic stimulus effect of Razorback athletics. Sure. The new construction will put some laborers to work. Chris Bahn at Sporting Life Arkansas puts the whole thing under the microscope. He wonders about the benefits to the HOGS, never mind the general economy, from some of the athletic department work.
* EXPANDING THE COOLING OFF PERIOD: OK, if legislators can't lobby for a year after leaving office (now, forget the horde of new lobbyists who exempted themselves from that bill when it passed two years ago), Sen. David Sanders proposes to extend the pain to many others. He filed a bill today to impose a one-year cooling off period for statewide elected officials, judges and, significantly, employees of statewide elected officeholders, heads of state agencies and deputy heads of state agencies and members of the Arkansas Public Service Commission. It also limits participation in judicial and other proceedings in behalf of private parties where the former employee has had involvement in an issue. He says he's concerned with the work current state officials and employees might do while on the public payroll to plan soft landings. Yes, a fair concern.
* A TOUCH OF BIPARTISANSHIP: Washington is coming. Republicans mounted a floor fight in the House today against a $1.8 million appropriation approved in Joint Budget to help pay for a huge increase in the cost of the GED test. Until now, the state has paid for the tests. The bill doesn't require the expenditure, it just allows it, depending on future developments. Republicans were up in arms against paying test fees. These strivers need to put their own "skin in the game" said the naysayers.. The amendment, offered by Rep. Warwick Sabin, passed with a bare 51 votes, to 32 nays. It wouldn't have happened without at least five Republican votes, including Allen Kerr of Little Rock and Speaker Davy Carter. You want to see the Ignorance Caucus, people unconcerned about increasing the number of people without high school degrees? Check the 32 in the roll call.
* PASSING THOUGHT: Could the city of Little Rock possibly have f***ed up worse the technology park circus? Did anybody ever think this thing through — what it was to be, how it would be paid for, what tangible benefits could be readily imagined, how it would be administered and governed? Or did City Hall just assume that it was SOP — give the Chamber of Commerce some money and let them do what they want to do, whether it makes any sense or tromps on any poor people or not. The messy democracy that has ensued is, if nothing else, a good lesson. Even if it only heightens the lack of faith in city government and an absence of effective leadership. PS — I'm on record favoring the downtown site if the park must be built. But I'm not in favor in letting a private commercial landowner hang onto his property and leverage it into a piece of a publicly subsidized real estate project. If condemnation is good enough for poor people's homes, it's good enough for a commercial real estate owner's marginal property.
Almost two months after the winter storm that left piles of tree debris mounded on city streets, the city has signed a contract to begin the cleanup. It has been working slowly with limited city crews, but if they've picked up anything in my neighborhood it was so slight as to be unnoticeable.
The city release:
City Manager Bruce Moore today signed a contract with Ceres Environmental to pick up the rest of the storm debris from the historic Christmas 2012 Winter Storm. This comes after President Barack Obama signed a FEMA declaration, which will allow the City to be reimbursed for this work.
“Little Rock residents will quickly see a demonstrable increase in the amount of storm debris being picked up daily,” said Moore. “The contract with Ceres Environmental is for 160 days; however, we expect them to finish before then.”
Ceres was the lowest qualified bidder at $47.44/ton. This company will bring in between 15-20 specialized debris cleanup trucks that have self loading booms and high volume truck beds.
We'd reported earlier that lawyer Scott Troutt had filed a complaint over Hutchison's report of use of campaign money for living expenses. Candidates are allowed by law to recoup money up to the amount of personal income lost from time off work. Hutchison said he took off from a $500-a-week job on his brother-in-law's farm to campaign.
The Ethics Commission apparently found that Hutchison ran afoul of the law that law prohibits use of campaign money for personal expenses. The statute defines personal expenses as including "Morgage, Rent and Utility Payments — This includes any payments with respect to a personal residence of the candidate of his or her family..." Hutchison paid rent for use of his mother's house and for her utility bills. Hutchison was given an offer to settle the case, but declined it and asked for a public hearing. It's set for a meeting of the Ethics Commisson tomorrow morning.
This letter lays out the allegation against Hutchison.
I asked among others, if Justice Goodson's trip had included use of the yacht of John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods and if that relationship would affect the justice's participation in Tyson cases. I asked about the nature of the business relationship between Justice Goodson's husband, John Goodson, the Texarkana trial lawyer (like Tyson a member of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees) and Taylor. I asked whether the gift perhaps could be construed as payment of a business obligation under the Goodson/Taylor relationship. I asked if Taylor had made a gift tax filing or report on the gift as an offset to the uniform lifetime exclusion for gifts under federal estate tax laws.
Most questions went unanswered, but one statement indicates the Goodson trip to Italy did include use of the Tyson yacht.
From Archie Schaffer III, a Tyson consultant:
First of all, W.H. Taylor represents the Tyson family, not Tyson Foods, Inc. He has not represented the company for a number of years. Second, the Tyson family does own a boat and because of the family’s relationship with Mr. Taylor, as both a long time friend and attorney, they have allowed him to use it on some occasions. We understand his friends, the Goodsons, may have accompanied him on the trip in question.
When I asked Schaffer if this amounted, as it appeared, to a confirmation that the Goodsons had used the Tyson yacht on the Italian gift trip, he referred me to Taylor. I haven't heard back from him. Earlier, he'd responded to several questions, "I don't talk about my personal life."
So far, I haven't gotten a return call from John Goodson.
Stephanie Harris, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, took my questions for Justice Goodson. She replied:
To avoid even an appearance of impropriety, Justice Goodson has been recusing from all Tyson cases.
Justice Goodson's recusals from Tyson case dates back to September 2011, when she issued this brief recusal letter in a Tyson case.
Otherwise, she said, "Justice Goodson will have no further comment."
I'd also asked Harris further questions about a point I raised previously. In December, Justice Goodson was named to succeed Justice Paul Danielson as the court's liasion to the Supreme Court committee that regulates the legal profession, including enforcement of ethics rules. Concurrent with her appointment was the naming of two Fayetteville lawyers to the disciplinary panel, Nicki Cung and Tonya Patrick, who happens to be W. H. Taylor's wife. these are unpaid positions.
Over the years, the justices who serve as liaison to the committee have had some influence over committee appointments. I asked how these latest appointments were made. Stephanie Harris responded:
Recommendations for committee appointments come from a variety of sources, including the justices themselves, committee members, or other attorneys. The recommendations are vetted, which just means they are asked whether they want to serve, then the Court checks to see if there is disciplinary history which may cause concern. Once that is done, the court votes as a body on the appointments.
You also might be inclined to wonder why John Goodson, a famously successful lawyer in class action cases, can't pick up the tab for his own vacation.
PS — There's a bit of ironic tension at work in this story. Justice Goodson, then Judge Henry, was elected to the Supreme Court in 2010 with significant business community financial support. They thought they'd elected a friendly jurist. They aren't happy now with some of Goodson's rulings, which they see friendlier to the trial lawyerly types like Goodson and Taylor. Add to it that Hudson divorced shortly after her election and her ex-husband, Mark Henry, was lauded extensively by new Justice Jo Hart when she was sworn in as being instrumental to her victory. Justices Hart and Goodson have wound up on different sides of recent opinions since then, if you're scoring at home.
This train has left the station en route to passage, but gubernatorial candidate Bill Halter, who led creation of the Arkansas Lottery, says legislation to alter scholarship amounts will inevitably reduce the number going to college, the opposite of the lottery's aim.
The bill — an apparent consensus compromise — will give all entering college students (at four-year or community colleges) $2,000. Each year after, students at four-year colleges can qualify for an additional $1,000 up to $5,000 in their fourth year. Currently, four-year students get $4,500 a year and two-year students get $2,250. It's a cut for all, though a bigger percentage hit on four-year students. On its face, it seems likely to push more marginal students toward a community college rather than a four-year institution, but only experience will show that for sure. The bill was approved in a House committee yesterday and no significant opposition has surfaced to passage in either house as yet.
Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter today blasted HB 1295 as a legislative proposal that ignores the express intent of Arkansans by dramatically altering the state’s scholarship lottery program that they approved in 2008.
“This legislation will make it significantly more difficult for Arkansas students to achieve a higher education,” said Halter. “With virtually no warning to tens of thousands of parents and students, this bill fundamentally changes the program to the point where it will reduce the number of Arkansas students able to enter a state college or university. It's a bad idea for students and parents and it's a bad idea for Arkansas.”
"The fact that more students have received the scholarship than was initially projected is an enormous success that deserves to be built upon rather than cut,” said Halter. “Arkansans approved the scholarship lottery to offer greater opportunities for higher education in our state.”
"This bill ignores the expectations of Arkansans who voted overwhelmingly for the scholarship lottery that passed with clear majorities in every legislative district in Arkansas," said Halter.
“We must do more to expand opportunity for Arkansans and to strengthen our workforce to help build and attract better paying jobs. This legislation undercuts all of these goals,” said Halter.
* STIFF THE WORKERS: The House Public Health Committee (John Burris, prop.) today rejected Rep. Jim Nickels' modest bill to add a week, from 25 to 26, to unemployment benefit payments.
If he'd testified that there were a number of Republican doctors on unemployment, he might have done better.
* STIFF THE VOTERS: Poor folks and minorities will bear the burden of Sen. Bryan King's bill to require a photo ID at the polls. It's in Senate committee at the moment. Identification is already requested, based on full identification at registration time. Republicans have yet to produce a shred of evidence of in-person voter impersonation. But Republicans nationally have pushed this idea, a product of the Koch-financed lobby to shape state legislation to their liking, because studies show it suppresses voting by groups that tend to favor Democratic candidates. With Republicans in the majority now, you hardly need to check back to see if the bill is approved in committee. Corn through a goose. UPDATE: It came through a committee with 5-3 Republican advantage on a voice vote, but only after Bryan King got all bent out of shape because Sen. David Johnson asked questions noting the aim of the bill, to suppress minority and elderly voters.
* STIFFING OF WOMEN DELAYED: Sen. Jason Rapert's bill to ban abortions beginning with the 12th week of pregnancy was delayed in House Public Health this morning after being amended to allow exceptions for "highly lethal fetal disorder." In other words, an exception when the fetus will die. This is a narrow exception that doesn't seem to allow exceptions for fetal anomalies in which a live birth is possible, but of a child with grave medical problems. Doctors who performed abortions in violation of the act would no longer face a felony, but loss of license. The amendment doesn't fix the core unconstitutionality of the bill. The Supreme Court has said states may not ban abortions before viability of the fetus. SURPRISE: Chairman Burris ruled the bill was endorsed on a voice vote, but a roll call was requested. Needing 11 votes, it failed on a 10-6 vote. Burris said he'd put it on the active calendar and call it up again with an effort to insure members were in attendance. (Or you may be sure they'll be punished by the GG&F Caucus.)
Now comes extremist Republican (but I repeat myself) Rep. Randy Alexander with constitutionally flawed legislation to protect legislators like Rep. Justin Harris who want to promote religion in their state-funded daycare programs.
His HB 1352, co-sponsored by a gang of Republicans, would amend existing law on the state-funded Arkansas Better Chance pre-school program, which has provided solid family income to Harris' Growing God's Kingdom daycare in West Fork and pre-schools operated in Mountain Home by Sen. Johnny Key's family. The prevalence of religious practices in those state-funded institution prompted a complaint, a review by DHS and a re-emphasis of the constitutional guidance that state money can't be used to establish religion (fundamentalist Christian in these cases).
Alexander would attempt to fix that. His bill would strike the part of the law that requires review of ABC programs to be sure they don't violate the constitutional church-state separation principle. Instead, it says:
Arkansas Better Chance Program funding may be approved for and expended by a faith-based early childhood program if the program is selected by the parent of a child enrolled in the faith-based early childhood program and not by a state agency or officer.
This bill for cleansing public subsidies to religious groups doesn't make publicly funded church constitutional. It is also an enormous slippery slope. You could just as readily take it to any aspect of school or government. It will employ lawyers if passed, which, given the theme of this session, you can't rule out.
Black students in Arkansas schools are more likely to be suspended and receive corporal punishment than their white counterparts, according to a new report from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF). In 2012 black students were given out-of-school suspension more than five times as often as white students, in-school-suspension almost three times as often, and corporal punishment almost twice as often.
Arkansas ranks 15th in the nation in the use of out-of-school suspension for all students, and 13th in the gap between black and white students in out-of-school suspensions. When students are not in school, they miss out on educational opportunities. School disciplinary policies that disproportionately keep students of color out of school reduce their opportunities to learn and increase gaps in educational achievement. According to the report, “Keeping Kids in Class: Fixing Racial Disparities in School Discipline,” Arkansas schools rely far too often on disciplinary approaches that keep too many of our students out of school, thus limiting their opportunity to learn.
Morning notes from the mail and more:
* THE GUNS AND FETUSES LEGISLATURE: The City Wire notes how Republican campaign season rhetoric that focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and such has been supplanted in the first month of the legislature with a laser-like focus on the womb and guns. The wackjobs must be served. Sadly, they'll got around to wreckage of state government with wealthy tax preferences and slashing of vital services soon enough. In the meanwhile fair comment on the GOP "bait and switch":
It was a rare pre-election interview in which you would hear a GOP legislative candidate talk something other than jobs and tax reform and jobs and shrinking the size of government and jobs and making Arkansas more competitive with neighboring states and jobs. Five of six talking points — the SIMPLE Plan — among GOP House candidates focused on economic, education and competitive issues.
But the post election action has been anything but jobs and responsible lawmaking and shrinking the size of government.
More than a month into the session, there is no substantive or sustained discussion of legislation involving tax reform, economic competitiveness and jobs. In fact, there is a small but vocal cabal challenging the job-delivering success of Gov. Mike Beebe. Odd.
* GOD, GUNS AND FETUSES III: Jason Rapert is always a source for material. Remember his Tea Party speech, in which he talked about the "stars and bars," Obama's birth certificate and minority viewpoints? He also railed about a Ramadan event at the White House and implied Obama lacked good Christian bona fides. Imagine what Rapert could have done at a Tea Party event with a vote such as he himself just cast. He supported a Senate resolution (by Republican sen. Bryan King) lauding contributions to Arkansas by citizens of Azerbaijan and urging Arkansas relationships with the Azerbaijani people. Readers think this is hypocritical of Rapert, given that the country is 99.2 percent Muslim. Maybe it's merely evidence of his ecumenical spirit, welcome after his nativist tirade against the president and a theme of Christian exceptionalism that's rarely far removed from his Twitter stream. With King as the sponsor, however, I'd be more likely to suspect a pecuniary angle at the heart of this onion.
* GOD, GUNS AND FETUSES IV: Something tells me the Republicans can make more of this. The New York Times reports:
The use of morning-after pills by American women has more than doubled in recent years, driven largely by rising rates of use among women in their early 20s, according to new federal data released Thursday.
The finding is likely to add to the public debate over rules issued by the Obama administration under the new health care law that require most employers to provide free coverage of birth control, including morning-after pills, to female employees. Some religious institutions and some employers have objected to the requirement and filed lawsuits to block its enforcement.
Arkansas Republicans hate providing health care for working people, period, but they REALLY hate preventive care for women because it includes birth control pills. If you screw, you pay the price is their motto.
Once fully in control, you can be sure Republicans will root out any support for contraception that exists within state government. Morning-after pills? Banning them might produce yet another constitutional amendment proposal, if only it wasn't too late. But it's not too late for Republicans to legislate against it. In their world, preventing implantation of a microscopic particle in the uterus that could grow into a fetus is murder. Really.
Republicans continued to express skepticism about the state Medicaid program's plan to shift to a reimbursement plan based on episodes of care and successful treatment, rather than a straight fee-for-services system. Two Republican doctors' wives in the state Senate, Cecile Bledsoe and Missy Irvin are not happy. The state might reduce costs — and effectively expand access to care — by steering business to physician assistants rather than doctors.
“If you have physicians out in the state who don’t want to do this, they’ll have nowhere to go,” said Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and chairman of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. “I’m just not comfortable with that.”
“If every single payer is going to cut [doctors] to the bone when they could have just been a nurse practitioner, when they’re going to replace them all with nurse practitioners anyway, why would you go to medical school? Why go through all that training? And the patients at the end of the day, we suffer,” Irvin said.
"We" suffer. Somehow, I don't think that "royal we" refers only to patients.
Bottom line: These Republicans oppose this system — not to mention the expansion of Medicaid in general. They'd rather serve fewer people under a system that pays doctors more than serve more people in a system that might save Arkansas taxpayers money.
The same meeting including some beefing about the high cost of the expensive worldwide consulting firm, McKinsey and Co., in advising DHS on its restructuring. Approval of a new $12.4 million contract was delayed.
Heck, no problem for DHS there to win over Republicans. Just call in U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton to testify. He was a high-dollar McKinsey consultant in Washington until the Club for Growth dispatched him to hold down a 4th District seat in Congress until he could run for Senate next year. Surely he'll testify to the efficacy of spending millions with McKinsey.
I'd been looking into the McKinsey deal after hearing they'd had employees on the ground in Little Rock for months and also heard that Arkansas had emerged as one of the firm's biggest public clients. I was interested because a couple of my relatives have worked for McKinsey in years past and many Little Rock natives toil for them around the globe. The firm has earned its reputation, but it is not known as a low-cost operator.
That $12.4 million new contract is on top of $28 million paid McKinsey over two years from a variety of Arkansas sources. The state contends the money is paying for itself in savings. Here's what DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb told me when I inquired earlier:
Orwell was right. Journalists are now slimed as "terrorists" for doing their jobs and reporting…
If at any point over the coming days, weeks, and months to come, you find…
Perfect example of the old saying, "If he had a brain, he'd take it out…
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